I’ve approached this review of Halo 4 differently from other reviews. I could have done the traditional “gameplay, graphic, sound, MP” review but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to tread the tried-and-true. Halo 4 is about the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief and I wanted to get that across. Read it and let me know if I’ve succeeded or whether you think I should have just done a traditional review. Oh, I have touched upon Halo 4’s Spartan Ops content or multiplayer: I haven’t had time to look at those yet.
Also, I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers – I think I’ve succeeded. Apologies if I haven’t.
At it’s very heart, Halo 4 is a kind of love story.
Not a love story where boy meets girl, they date for a bit then elope off together, ladder in hand, but one where the boy is a hardened soldier, who does what he is told without question and can wield a DMR rifle like no other, and the other is an artificial construct, who acts like a mother, a sister and a confidant to the boy. They share an inseparable bond, the sort of bond that could only be formed when you’ve experience what the boy – Master Chief – and Cortana – the girl – have experienced.
They’ll do anything for each other and Halo 4 is about Master Chief and Cortana and the bond they share.
At the end of Halo 4, there’s a message from 343 Industries, the fledgling studio embarking on the new Halo trilogy, just before the credits roll. It opens: “Every great journey begins with a small step. This is our beginning”. And what a great first step this game is, even if it feels a little familiar at times. That said, Halo 4 feels like a Halo game should, plays like a Halo game should but 343 have infused it with a little of their own DNA.
There was no doubt that 343 had a lot of pressure to deliver a great Halo experience, especially after the phenomenal job former custodian Bungie did. For me, though, this is the best Halo game yet: better than Halo 2, better than Halo 3. This is the only Halo game where I really connected with the Master Chief and Cortana.
Set four years after the Halo event, the game’s opening salvo begins with the Master Chief being woken from five years of cryo-sleep by Cortana. The UNSC ship they’re on is under attack from a rogue group of Covenant who have abandoned the peace treaty between their race and the Covenant. Halo 4 is also a game about a new enemy, the Prometheans. Right off the bat, Halo 4 is visually stunning game with a level of richness and detail in the environments I’ve not seen in the series before.
Embedded all through the game, though, is the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. She’s old now: most constructs only last seven years service but she’s into her eighth year. “I won’t recover from rampancy [an AI form of Alzheimer's],” Cortana tells the Master Chief as her behaviour gets more and more erratic. Master Chief suggests a solution: “Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep” she replies. It helps that Cortana is voiced, again, amazingly, believably, by actress Jen Taylor. She is the star of this show.
This time, too, Master Chief seems to be coming to grips with his human side and prepared to make his own decisions, rather than do what his superiors tell him. Halo 4 lets us in, just a little, into the psyche of battle-weary Master Chief who, up until now has suppressed his human side. He’s now reflecting on his humanity. I connected with Halo 4 unlike any game in the series before it.
I keep going on about the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana but for me that’s the focal point of Halo 4. Yes, there are enemies to kills – and the combat is very good – and objectives to complete, but at times I thought that 343 was playing it just a little safe in terms of game play: sometimes when I entered a complex I just had a feeling that I’d have to push three buttons and they’d be lots of enemies between me and my objective, and generally I was right. Maybe they will take more risks with the other two games in the series.
To me, the dominant thread throughout the game is the relationship between soldier and AI: where it has got to after 10 years together. In one poignant moment, as Cortana stares out at an artificial sun, fighting to keep her rampancy under control, she says to Master Chief: “Before this is all over, promise you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” It was a moment that struck a chord with me.
But at the risk of being accused of glossing over the other aspects of the game, I should get down to game play specifics, I guess. You’ll see that I haven’t addressed the game’s many multi-player modes or the episodic Spartan Ops content. I just haven’t had the time to even look at those yet. I’ll do those soon. I promise.
The Covenant Elites seem smarter this time around, more agile – or perhaps it’s that my reflexes aren’t what they used to be – and when it comes to confrontation with large foes, like Hunters, I’m more likely to take the cowards route and stand back from a safe vantage point and bombard them with explosive weapons than take them head on. Don’t judge me for it.
As you’d expect, there’s vehicular combat: flying a pelican is great fun as is the mantis, a bipedal mech armed with rockets and a gattling gun. You can also drive a Scorpion tank sometimes, if you want: I used one as much and as often as I could. It saved Master Chief getting tired from walking too much.
And not only is there a new development studio but also a new composer behind the soundtrack, British producer/musician/composer Neil Davidge. For me, though, apart from one tracks, Arrival, Davidge’s work just doesn’t match the lofty compositions of Marty O’Donnell, the American composer who created Halo’s memorable soundtrack. The audio, too, must be mentioned: weapons sound meaty, vocal work is done superbly and things just sound wonderful.
At the end, though, I keep coming back to the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief. That’s Halo 4 crowning glory. Sure, the game play is solid and the visuals rich, but the story of Cortana and Master Chief is the meat here. And I liked that.